Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Risk Communication as Interacting Arguments: Viewing the L'Aquila Earthquake Disaster through the Message Convergence Framework

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Risk Communication as Interacting Arguments: Viewing the L'Aquila Earthquake Disaster through the Message Convergence Framework

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

On April 6, 2009, a 6.3 magnitude earthquake struck L'Aquila, Italy killing 309 people, injuring 1,500 people, temporarily displacing 65,000 civilians, and destroying 20,000 buildings (Jordan et al., 2011). Three years after the earthquake, on October 22, 2012, Bernardo de Bernardinis, the former Vice President of the Civil Protection Agency's technical department, and six former scientists at the National Commission for the Forecast and Prevention of Major Risks were sentenced to six years in jail and were found guilty on charges of multiple manslaughter (Sturloni, 2012). The prosecution found the seven defendants guilty on the grounds of failing to adequately communicate to the public the actual seismic risk of the earthquake before it arrived. In other words, the defendants were not accused for their lack of ability to predict the earthquake, but rather they were sentenced for "having deprived the citizens of information that may have saved their lives" (p. 1). Frustrated by the sentences, Italian Environment Minister, Corrado Clini, compared the L'Aquila trial to that which Galileo endured nearly four centuries ago, arguing that not since the age of Enlightenment have scientists been prosecuted for their evaluations (Sturloni, 2012). Time likened the verdict to an early period in history "when there were witches to bum and demons to exorcise" (Kluger, 2012, para. 1).

While the international scientific community finds the charges against the sentenced group unwarranted on the grounds that predicting an earthquake remains "technically impossible" (Hall, 2011, p. 265), L'Aquila residents say the trial has deeper roots and has to do with the failure of the government-appointed scientists to "adequately evaluate, and then communicate, the potential risk to the local population" (p. 266). In fact, the Operational Earthquake Forecasting State of Knowledge and Guidelines for Utilization (Jordan et ah, 2011) calls for better communication employed during risk events stating, "the principles of effective public communication established by social science research should be applied to the delivery of seismic hazard information" (p. 319).

The L'Aquila residents sought input from scientists as the earthquake prone region was experiencing a swarm of small earthquakes. In retrospect, the individual who spoke to the L'Aquila citizens on behalf of the six scientists, Bernardo De Bernardinis, then vice director of the government's Civil Protection Department, failed to account for the debate among the six scientists focusing on the probability the area could soon experience a major earthquake. Instead, he issued a definitive statement discounting the risk and urging the L'Aquila inhabitants to return to their homes. In doing so, he muted the scientists who had put forward a plurality of arguments related to the probability of an impending major earthquake in L'Aquila. Ideally, debate over such matters of risk takes the form of interacting arguments where multiple assertions are heard and points of convergence are noted (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1969). Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's (1969) New Rhetoric "allows for a pluralism of values and a multiplicity of ways of being reasonable" (Dearin, 1969, p. 214). Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca explain that arguments can interact on multiple levels: "interaction between various arguments put forward, interaction between the arguments and the overall argumentative situation, between the arguments and their conclusion, and, finally, between the arguments occurring in the discourse and those that are about the discourse" (p. 460). The interaction of these arguments produces points of convergence that ultimately contribute to "action and reasonableness" (Tindale, 2010, p. 337). The uncertainty, difference of opinions, and contested recommendations typical in public discussion of risk issues make Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's explanation of interacting arguments particularly fitting for describing and analyzing risk communication successes and failures. …

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